Snapshots of Detroit: The Millions Interviews Dominique Morisseau

June 15, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

The final piece of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Trilogy, Paradise Blue, is now ending its extended run at Signature Theatre in New York. The trilogy’s earlier pieces, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew, dealt respectively with the city’s bloody summer of 1967 and, four decades later, with the death rattles of the once-mighty auto industry and the Motor City itself.

Paradise Blue unfolds in late 1949 at a nightclub called Paradise, located in the heart of Detroit’s thriving black entertainment district known as Paradise Valley. There’s a cloud hanging over the club and its denizens. The owner, a jazz trumpeter named Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson), is haunted by the ghost of his murderous father, and by something far more palpable. Race-baiting Albert Cobo has just been elected mayor on a promise to rid the city of “blight,” a code word for dilapidated—and vibrant and black—Paradise Valley. During Cobo’s tenure, the neighborhood will be razed to make way for the Chrysler Freeway.

Calamity is always hovering in Morisseau’s Detroit. It takes the form of rioting, a plant closing, the wrecking ball of urban “renewal.” The question in her work is how her Detroiters will retain their dignity and their humanity in the face of forces that yearn to crush them. The Millions spoke with Morisseau by phone from her current home in Los Angeles.

The Millions: As I was watching the play, I couldn’t help thinking that even though this is the third piece of the trilogy, in a way it was the source material. Here we are in 1949, Detroit’s population is at its peak of almost 2 million people, and it’s getting ready for the long slide that nobody knows is coming. It’s going to get a big boost from the newly elected, racist mayor, Albert Cobo. Is this the origin of these three plays?

Dominique Morisseau: Absolutely. I wrote this play at the same time I wrote Detroit ’67. Then Skeleton Crew, the third play in the cycle, was written a couple of years later. But I knew what I wanted to do with all three from the moment I began writing the first one. The order they in which they got produced in New York is its own journey [laughs]. Has nothing to do with the way I created the plays.

TM: All three of these plays spring from very specific moments in Detroit’s history. Detroit ’67, of course, was the bloody summer of 1967. Skeleton Crew was in 2008, when General Motors and the city were about to go bankrupt. And now Paradise Blue is set in 1949. When we talked before, you told me you’re not writing history, even though the city’s history is very much a part of your plays. What exactly are you writing?

DM: I think I’m writing about community, and about family, and about home. I would say maybe it’s taken me a while to embrace history, but that’s not what I started out to do. I was just interested in particular moments, but for me it wasn’t about trying to have a historical agenda. What I’m really writing about is people, and those people transcend the time period they’re in; they even transcend region. I’m writing about humanity, and that’s everybody’s entry point into the plays.

TM: The thing I love about your characters is that they’re very different; they’re very distinct; they’re three-dimensional; they’re not perfect. You said before you’re not writing from a point of judgment but from a point of love. I’m curious where these characters come from. Are they composites of people you’ve known? Are they bits of historical figures? Are they pure fictions? Some combination of all of the above?

DM: All of the above, for sure. I always start with what I know to find my way into someone’s humanity, no matter what their background is. I write some pretty hard-to-love characters.

TM: Blue is not exactly a fuzzy puppy.

DM: For me he is, in some ways. Obviously he’s got a dark side, and I wish we could feel what’s hurting him, because hurt people hurt people. I look at humanity that way. I do look at the hurt that Blue has faced and the abuse he has taken in his life and been a witness to as a black musician in the time period he’s living in. What the character Corn says is the absolute truth—to be brilliant and second-class, you will be insane for the rest of your life. When we were in rehearsal, I would bring up the James Baldwin quote that I love because it speaks to Blue in a lot of ways: “To be black and to be relatively conscious is to be in a constant state of rage.”

TM: And that’s Blue in a nutshell, isn’t it?

DM: Yeah.

TM: You mentioned that August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh cycle was an inspiration to you. Now, you’ve finished this trilogy, which to me is a perfect circle. Does this mean you’re finished with Detroit, or are you going to keep going back there?

DM: I’m never finished with Detroit, but I don’t necessarily need it to be part of a cycle. But there are more stories to tell in Detroit, and I definitely want to tell them. With these three plays I picked moments that really changed the landscape of the city. There are other moments that also did it. There’s one more big event that I didn’t include in the trilogy that I could maybe use.

TM: What’s the moment?

DM: I’m really interested in the newspaper strike that happened in the 1990s. I respect journalists who believe in balanced journalism. I also think journalism carries a huge burden—it can be helpful or harmful. People’s trades really inspire me. There’s something about the tactile-ness of people delivering newspapers, bringing the press to our doorstep. When I was a little girl I didn’t understand much about a strike, but I knew good and doggone well when that strike was happening that we better not have no newspaper. I come from a union family. My father-in-law lost his job at that time and never got it back. Something got severed. From his world and my memories as a little girl, I’m really interested in going back to that time.

TM: Do you think the city of Detroit is really coming back—or is there just a lot of hype about white hipsters moving in and a few pockets of prosperity?

DM: I just got back from Detroit yesterday. My family is all there and I’m dealing with some family health stuff. I’m there often because I’m on the board of the Detroit Public Theater. “Is Detroit coming back?” is a weird question. Coming back to what? I think everybody in the city, especially the people who’ve been there over the past 40 years, would like to see the city thrive. Anything that moves in that direction is exciting to everybody. But anything that disrupts or displaces the people who’ve been there through the turmoil—I think that’s going to feel really nasty. And that’s what it’s starting to feel like. I have about 300 family members in Detroit, and they run the gamut. There are different feelings. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit. There are born-and-raised Detroiters who feel they need to take ownership of their city. Here’s what I can really say. I know people who have moved to Detroit and started a business and they go on social media and say, “Hey, we’ve got this new restaurant, #NewDetroit.” And #NewDetroit really was pissing off #OldDetroit! There’s no bigger way to point out a blind spot over what it means to gentrify. Wait a minute, wait a minute, just wait a minute. If you really want to connect with a community and build within that community, you’ve got to deal with the people who are there. If you want to put a hashtag or a flag down, you’ve got to be really careful that you’re not planting that over somebody’s memories. It’s possible to have development without displacement, but I’m not sure that’s what’s happening in the city.

TM: I’m looking forward to the play about the newspaper strike. You got a title yet?

DM: No [laughs]. I don’t have anything yet. We’ll see if it happens.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

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